Category: Artists and the Iraq war

I Am Not The Enemy

Hundreds of people gathered on the grounds of the Japanese American National Museum on Sept. 9, 2010, for a candlelight vigil in support of the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans. The banner reads, "In Remembrance… Embrace Life. Justice Not Revenge - Oppose Hate Crimes." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Hundreds of people gathered on the grounds of the Japanese American National Museum on Sept. 9, 2010, for a candlelight vigil in support of the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans. The banner reads, "In Remembrance… Embrace Life. Justice Not Revenge - Oppose Hate Crimes." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

I will never forget waking up on September 11, 2001 to the spectacle of the Twin Towers being hit by missile-like planes. That day I turned on morning television only to see those slow motion videos of doom and destruction; I watched with eyes full of tears and heart full of dread.

Nearly 3,000 people perished in the terror attack, but I felt there was something much worse yet to come.

In the immediate aftermath of the horrendous crimes committed on Sept. 11, thousands of racially motivated attacks took place in the U.S. that targeted anyone who “looked Arab.” Mosques were vandalized and firebombed. Arab-Americans, Muslims, and South Asians were harassed, beaten, and killed. As the attacks intensified, I responded by creating an artwork titled, I Am Not The Enemy, which was nothing more than a plea for sanity and religious tolerance. The political atmosphere at the time reminded me of another era, the days after the Japanese Empire attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941, and “patriotic” Americans unleashed their fury upon innocent Japanese-American citizens. President Roosevelt would issue Executive Order 9066, sending 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to what the president himself called “concentration camps.”

Participants in the vigil at the Japanese American National Museum plaza hold copies of my poster, "I Am Not The Enemy." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Participants in the vigil at the Japanese American National Museum plaza hold copies of my poster, "I Am Not The Enemy." Photo and artworks by Mark Vallen ©.

Nine years after 9/11, 5,697 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to this date, and President Obama has escalated the Afghan war. Untold numbers of Iraqi and Afghan civilians have perished, and Islamophobia in the U.S. has increased. A proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan has turned into a frenzied national campaign of hate against all things Islamic - and I fear a terrible violence will follow.

Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Photo and artwork by Mark Vallen ©.

Accordingly, when I was informed that a candlelight vigil against hate crimes would be held at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles, I was eager to attend.

Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR) and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), worked in cooperation with the Japanese American National Museum to organize the silent candlelight vigil; the objective was to express support for Muslim Americans and their constitutional rights, as well as to condemn religious intolerance.

The vigil took place during the evening of September 9, 2010, and nearly 200 people, mostly Japanese Americans, gathered on the plaza in front of the museum. I distributed a few dozen copies of my I Am Not The Enemy poster to those assembled, and the prints were warmly received.

The public relations director of the Japanese American National Museum, Chris Komai, addressed the crowd, which was incredibly significant in and of itself. Most museums are aloof when it comes to real world issues and community affairs, and one does not ordinarily think of museum personnel taking part - officially or otherwise - in political protests of any kind.

Around 200 people filled the Japanese American National Museum plaza for the silent, candlelight vigil. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Around 200 people filled the Japanese American National Museum plaza for the silent, candlelight vigil. Photo and artwork by Mark Vallen ©.

I was unfortunately unable to hear Komai’s oration as I was busy taking the pictures you see in this article, however, I would like to point out that the Japanese American National Museum has the following in their mission statement; “We share the story of Japanese Americans because we honor our nation’s diversity. We believe in the importance of remembering our history to better guard against the prejudice that threatens liberty and equality in a democratic society.” By providing space on their grounds for the vigil, the museum more than lived up to their mission statement, and their example should be followed by other museums and arts institutions.

It was heartening to see that a good portion of the vigil was composed of young people. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

It was heartening to see that a good portion of the vigil was composed of young people. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Also addressing the vigil was the Reverend Mark Nakagawa, who talked about his work with the Nikkei Interfaith Council, a grouping of Christian Churches and Buddhist Temples in the Little Tokyo area. He spoke of how the council was engaged in outreach programs with the Islamic community of Los Angeles in these times of crisis, and urged one and all to defend the democratic rights of Muslim Americans.

Rev. Nakagawa outlined his work with the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group of Southern California, which was founded in 2006 for the express purpose of bringing Christians and Muslims together “to enhance mutual understanding, respect, appreciation, and support of the Sacred in each other.”

The Rev. Nakagawa’s impassioned call for religious freedom was followed by a short address from Noriaki Ito of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple. An outstanding member of the Japanese American community in Los Angeles, Ito currently sits on the Board of Directors of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, and served as the Past Chair of the Little Tokyo Community Council. He is actively involved in the preservation of L.A.’s Little Tokyo district. Mr. Ito came to the vigil wearing a formal black and white “wagesa” (Buddhist robe), and he spoke with the wisdom of a Buddhist Kyoshi (teaching priest), calling for unity between all people of faith, and the defeat of religious intolerance.

Ms. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was forced into the Manzanar "internment" camp at age 17, addresses the vigillers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, who was forced into the Manzanar "internment" camp at age 17, addresses the vigillers. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Ms. Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga gave the most powerful of testimonies during the vigil. A California-born U.S. citizen, Aiko and her family were swept up in the relocation of “enemy aliens” after President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942. As a 17-year-old she and her family were sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, a barracks-like camp in California where she gave birth to her daughter under crude living conditions. Aiko and family were transferred to the bleak Jerome internment camp in Arkansas, where they remained imprisoned until 1944.

As Aiko described her life in the Manzanar and Jerome internment camps, from the same spot where thousands of Japanese Americans had been shipped off to those unwelcoming camps all those years ago, tears came to my eyes.

The same demons of racism, ignorance, and fear that sent Aiko to those wretched camps are once again plaguing U.S. society (did they ever go away), only this time they are pursuing Muslim Americans. The 86-year-old Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, speaking passionately and with great authority, exhorted vigillers from a megaphone to defend the civil liberties of Muslim Americans as they would defend their own.

California State Assemblymember Warren Furutani, also addressed the vigil, and in his eloquent way urged people to stand united with their “Muslim brothers and sisters” in opposing all forms of racism, discrimination, and religious intolerance. Mr. Furutani waxed poetic as he railed against certain sectors of U.S. society, “where hate can be purchased wholesale,” an obvious reference to the right-wing “talk” radio hosts who daily spew out vile and unbearable lies about Islam and Muslim Americans.

Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Photo and artworks by Mark Vallen ©.

Jan Tokumaru of Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, read a statement at the vigil that had been published by the NCRR for the occasion. It read in part;

“Nine years ago - just days after Sept. 11 - Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR), along with other organizations including the Japanese American Citizens League, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, the Japanese American National Museum and the Little Tokyo Service Center, sponsored a candlelight vigil in Little Tokyo to remember the victims of 9/11 and to speak in defense of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and South Asians who were being maligned as ‘terrorists,’ physically attacked, and even murdered in places such as Arizona. Since 9/11, attempts to marginalize and target Muslim Americans as a ’suspect’ community sympathetic to terrorist incidents throughout the world continue.

(….) Japanese Americans remember all too well how it feels to be a community singled out with suspicion, marginalized and viciously attacked by the media. Despite many efforts to show their loyalty to this country, Japanese were not trusted as reflected in General DeWitt’s statements: ‘A Jap is a Jap,’ and ‘I have no confidence in their loyalty whatsoever.’ The constant barrage of lies in the media became accepted as truth by the American public.

(….) Although the situation is not as dire for Muslim Americans now as it was for Japanese Americans during World War II, NCRR is concerned that the climate of intolerance and fear being created could, under certain circumstances, lead to the stripping of civil liberties and religious freedom for Muslim Americans. Even worse is the violence resulting from such ignorance, such as the stabbing in New York last month of a 44-year-old taxi driver after his passenger asked if he was a Muslim.

(….) NCRR encourages Japanese Americans and all Americans to speak out against anti-Muslim lies and attacks. At a speech given several years ago, Dr. Maher Hathout, a Muslim American leader, said ‘as long as there is one candle lit, there is no darkness.’ Speaking symbolically, he was referring to the struggle of the Palestinian people against occupation - that as long as there was even one person willing to struggle against injustice, there could not be total darkness or oppression. In a similar spirit, NCRR hopes that many candles can be lit on Sept. 9, to show the American people’s commitment to the truth - not lies and distortions - and for justice, peace, religious freedom, and equality - precious values that we hold dear.”

At the end of the vigil, organizers asked participants to form a giant peace sign by grouping themselves together around an outline drawn on the museum’s plaza. A handful of photographers, myself included, were given access to the museum’s rooftop to take photos of the event. The aim was to present a gift - an image of solidarity and peace - to the beleaguered Muslim citizens of the United States.

As of this writing, save for one solitary article published by the Rafu Shimpo Japanese daily newspaper of Los Angeles, not a single news media source in the U.S. (aside from this web log), has reported on the silent vigil that took place at the Japanese American National Museum.

At the end of the vigil, participants formed a giant peace sign in the museum's plaza. This photograph was taken from the museum's rooftop. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

At the end of the vigil, participants formed a giant peace sign in the museum's plaza. This photograph was taken from the museum's rooftop. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

[A full listing of the speakers at the vigil includes - Reverend Mark Nakagawa of the Centenary Methodist Church; Noriaki Ito, Rinban (head minister) of the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple; Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a WWII internee; Dana Fujiko Heatherton, 2009 Nisei Week Queen and a J-Town Voice activist concerned with the preservation of L.A.'s Little Tokyo, California State Assemblymember Warren Furutani, Jan Tokumaru of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Aziza Hasan from the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and Ilham Elkoustaf from the Council on American Islamic Relations.]

LACMA & BP’s Iraqi Oil Fields

BP - Beyond Petroleum?On July 1, 2009, the U.S. backed Iraqi government announced that BP (British Petroleum) and China National Petroleum Corp., had been awarded contracts to exploit Iraq’s al-Rumeila oil field – one of the largest oil fields in the world. In the past BP has attempted to rebrand itself as a “clean energy” company, going so far as to promote itself under the alternative name - Beyond Petroleum. CNN reports:

“Iraq did not say how much the BP-CNPC bid was worth. It runs for 20 years. (….) Iraq has some of the largest oil reserves in the world, with an estimated 115 billion barrels - tying Iran for second place, behind Saudi Arabia’s 264 billion barrels, according to estimates from the Energy Information Administration in the United States.”

Here it must be noted that in March of 2007, BP revealed it had donated $25 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to help pay for the museum’s expansion and renovation. This was followed by LACMA Director Michael Govan publicizing plans to erect a massive entry gate to the museum that will display the name - BP Grand Entrance. It was highly touted that giant solar panels will top the gate, providing the museum with some of its energy needs. Explaining why he decided to pursue British Petroleum as a major corporate backer of LACMA, Govan stated in a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy.”

With BP now in charge of exploiting Iraq’s largest oil field, LACMA’s rationalizing taking money from a company committed “to sustainable energy” is as threadbare as the reasons behind the continuing U.S. military occupation of Iraq.

Zombie Banks, Art Museums, & War

The equation is a simple one, in good economic times people feel they can afford to support the arts, in bad economic times - much less so. I do not mean to frame the question of art purely in financial terms, since some of the greatest art we know of has been created in the most impoverished settings and some of the best artists were, and are… paupers. Moreover, no matter how dire things are, art always has the capacity to bring relief and inspiration to those in low spirits. What I mean to express is simply that artists need to pay their rent like every other worker, and at present some one million American workers are losing their jobs each month.

Yesterday Wall Street stocks tumbled to new record lows as financial leviathans demanded billions more in bailout funds. A new term is making the rounds, “Zombie Banks”, an expression that describes insolvent banks kept operating through infusions of government bailout money. An older expression is also making the rounds - Depression.

Americans for the Arts (AFTA) has estimated that this year national arts organizations will layoff some 10% of their work force, or roughly 260,000 people. AFTA has also voiced the expectation that of the nation’s 100,000 arts organizations - some 10% will permanently close down. Clearly, the arts are being deeply affected by the economic collapse and the situation will undoubtedly get worse. The following list of U.S. museums that are closing or enacting deep cutbacks is but a partial account from just this past February. It illustrates the absurdity of thinking President Obama’s inclusion of $50 million for national arts funding in his stimulus package will have any substantial impact upon America’s deteriorating cultural landscape.

The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, will cut salaries and eliminate 7 percent of its workforce. Director Michael Shapiro said, “As with many non-profit institutions both in Atlanta and across the country, the High Museum of Art has been affected by the economic downturn, experiencing shortfalls in income we receive through donations and membership as well as losses to our endowment.” Shapiro will take a 7 percent cut in pay and other director-level employees will receive a 6 percent cut. All other workers at the museum will receive a 5 percent cut in pay.

The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, has laid-off seven of its 150 employees, imposed a salary and hiring freeze, and cancelled a major exhibition of works by French painter Jean-Leon Gerome - an exhibit that would have been a collaborative project with the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Getty in Los Angeles. The museum’s budget has been reduced from $14.5 million to $12.5 million. The Walters also faces a 36 percent reduction in state funding, which means a loss of $420,000 for the museum next year.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is also facing state funding cuts, which could mean a loss of some $700,000 for the beleaguered orchestra. The Baltimore Opera Company is now seeking bankruptcy protection and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra has suspended performances for the rest of the season, with the Baltimore Theatre Project announcing it may have to do the same. The Maryland Historical Society, suffering a 31 percent reduction of endowments and a drop in state funding, has laid-off six staff members.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has laid-off 16 members of its staff. The museum is not only reducing staff, it is postponing exhibits, decreasing programs, and cutting salaries. Senior staff are receiving salary cuts from between five and 10 percent. The museum has suffered a loss of $90 million in endowments, and the donations continue to shrink. Museum chair H.F. Lenfest bluntly stated, “If endowment keeps being reduced in value there are going to be further steps taken. We would anticipate further reductions in personnel and operating.” The museum is also being hit hard by reductions in state funding, which this year dropped from $3 million to $2.4 million - with further cuts expected for next year. The museum wants to increase admission fees, an act that must first be approved by the city.

The Detroit Institute of the Arts will be laying off 63 of its 301 employees, a 20 % reduction in staff, as it attempts to cut its budget by $6 million. The museum is reducing its number of exhibits in a further attempt to save money, and it has already cancelled three exhibitions this year for lack of funds - an exhibit on Baroque art, a showing of works by Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Jim Dine, and an exhibit of prints and drawings related to books. The museum also faces a total elimination of state funding, as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposed budget for the state of Michigan puts an end to state arts funding, which would mean a devastating loss of $950,000 for the hard pressed DIA.

The Las Vegas Art Museum closed its doors on February 28, 2009. It shall retain its name in the hopes of re-opening if and when the economy improves. The museum faced a budget crisis that threatened to lay off workers and reduce salaries. Museum director Libby Lumpkin resigned over the announced cuts, and soon after the museum closed its doors.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has announced a hiring freeze and is restricting staff travel, as well as the use of temporary employees. In addition the museum will close 15 of its gift stores across the nation. The Met’s endowment has suffered a 30% reduction and museum attendance and membership has fallen due to declining tourism. The Met is considering other ways to reduce its budget, with museum president Emily Rafferty saying that “we cannot eliminate the possibility of a head-count reduction.”

The Indianapolis Museum of Art will cut its staff by 10%, eliminating 15 full-time positions and 6 part-time positions. Ten senior staff members will receive salary cuts in a plan that takes 3 percent of their wages as “donations” to the institution. Endowments have fallen $101 million since this fall. The museum receives less than 1 % of its budget from government funding.

The following should put everything in context. The Associated Press reported on February 26, 2009, that President Obama has proposed war spending that nears “$11 billion a month for the next year and a half despite the planned drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq.” The AP went on to report that Obama plans on spending around $75 billion in emergency war funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through next fall, on top of which his new budget asks for $130 billion to carry out the wars for fiscal year 2010. The same AP story reports that these costs are just “part of the nearly $534 billion Obama wants for regular Pentagon operations next year. Altogether, Obama is asking for $739 billion for the military through the fall of 2010.”

New York Times Proclaims End to Wars

Well… not really. Unidentified merry pranksters have published and distributed a fake “special edition” of The New York Times with a banner headline that proclaims; “IRAQ WAR ENDS: Troops to Return Immediately”. The first sentence of an accompanying article reads: “Thousands take to the streets to celebrate the announced end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”. On Wednesday morning, Nov. 12, 2008, over one million copies of the forged edition were circulated for free by volunteers working with the anonymous publishers.

We Can Dream Can't We?

[ Front page of the fake "special edition" of The New York Times, Nov. 12, 2008. ]

The counterfeit edition also features full articles with titles like; “Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy”, “Maximum Wage Law Succeeds”, “USA Patriot Act Repealed”, “Nationalized Oil To Fund Climate Change Efforts”, “Gitmo, Other Centers Closed”, “Health Insurance Act Clears House”, and “Bush to Face Charges”.

It will certainly be argued that the intricate prank qualifies more as activism than art - but the hoax displays a good deal more inspiration and relevancy than the greater part of today’s conceptual or performance art practices. The press release for the sophisticated hoax reads as follows:

“November 12, 2008 - Early this morning, commuters nationwide were delighted to find out that while they were sleeping, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had come to an end. If, that is, they happened to read a ’special edition’ of today’s New York Times. In an elaborate operation six months in the planning, 1.2 million papers were printed at six different presses and driven to prearranged pickup locations, where thousands of volunteers stood ready to pass them out on the street.

Articles in the paper announce dozens of new initiatives including the establishment of national health care, the abolition of corporate lobbying, a maximum wage for C.E.O.s, and, of course, the end of the war.

The paper, an exact replica of The New York Times, includes International, National, New York, and Business sections, as well as editorials, corrections, and a number of advertisements, including a recall notice for all cars that run on gasoline. There is also a timeline describing the gains brought about by eight months of progressive support and pressure, culminating in President Obama’s ‘Yes we REALLY can’ speech. (The paper is post-dated July 4, 2009.)

‘It’s all about how at this point, we need to push harder than ever,’ said Bertha Suttner, one of the newspaper’s writers. ‘We’ve got to make sure Obama and all the other Democrats do what we elected them to do. After eight, or maybe twenty-eight years of hell, we need to start imagining heaven.’ Not all readers reacted favorably. ‘The thing I disagree with is how they did it,’ said Stuart Carlyle, who received a paper in Grand Central Station while commuting to his Wall Street brokerage. ‘I’m all for freedom of speech, but they should have started their own paper.’”

The pranksters have also published a phony New York Times website that mirrors the content of the faux paper. I have had trouble reaching the website - no doubt due to heavy traffic, and it remains to be seen how long it will manage to stay online before the real New York Times succeeds in shutting it down. The website includes clever additions unavailable in the paper - like videos and animated advertisements.

What If?

[ Still from video showing the distribution of the fake New York Times. ]

One video documents the distribution of the fake NYT on the streets of New York City - and the responses from the citizenry are remarkable. A fictitious ad for American Apparel apologizes for the company being “naughty”, while pledging, “…but now we are unionizing our employees”. The Fine Print, the editorial statement published on the sham website, fully explains the intent behind the guerilla art/activist project:

“This special edition of The New York Times comes from a future in which we are accomplishing what we know today to be possible. The dozens of volunteer citizens who produced this paper spent the last eight years dreaming of a better world for themselves, their friends, and any descendants they might end up having. Today, that better world, though still very far away, is finally possible - but only if millions of us demand it, and finally force our government to do its job.

It certainly won’t be easy. Even now, corporate representatives are swarming over Washington to get their agendas passed. The energy giants are demanding ‘clean coal,’ nuclear power and offshore drilling. Military contractors are pushing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. H.M.O.s and insurance companies are promoting bogus ‘reforms’ so they can forestall universal health care. And they’re not about to take no for an answer.

But things are different this time. This time, we can hold accountable the politicians we put into office. And because everyone can now see that the ‘free market’ has nothing to do with freedom, there is a huge opening to pass policies that can benefit all Americans, and that can make us truly free - free to pursue an education without debt, go on vacation every once in a while, keep healthy, and live without the crushing guilt of knowing what our tax dollars are doing abroad.”

The NYT special edition guerilla art project not only encourages people to imagine a better world, it urges them to struggle for it. This is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in an ad featured in both the paper and online editions. The ad features a smiling Barack Obama, along with the words: “Epoch-making, Pivotal, Squandered. The more we look at the world the more we understand that some things really matter. Not only our choice of President, but how we make sure that he, like all of our elected officials, does what we elected him to do - its not over yet.”

[ UPDATE: Late Wed. afternoon - 11/12/08, I received a Press Release from the organizers of the spoof, who are claiming that: "Hundreds of independent writers, artists, and activists" are responsible for the action. Quoting from the communiqué: "The people behind the project are involved in a diverse range of groups, including The Yes Men, the Anti-Advertising Agency, CODEPINK, United for Peace and Justice, Not An Alternative, May First/People Link, Improv Everywhere, Evil Twin, and Cultures of Resistance".

Steve Lambert, one of the project's organizers and an editor of the paper, said; "We wanted to experience what it would look like, and feel like, to read headlines we really want to read. It's about what's possible, if we think big and act collectively." One of the project's organizers, Beka Economopoulos, stated that; "This election was a massive referendum on change. There's a lot of hope in the air, but there's a lot of uncertainty too. It's up to all of us now to make these headlines come true." Andy Bichlbaum, another project organizer and editor of the paper, stated; "It doesn't stop here. We gave Obama a mandate, but he'll need mandate after mandate after mandate to do what we elected him to do. He'll need a lot of support, and yes - a lot of pressure." ]